I sat completely still for a very long minute. I knew Hawk was walking Manning into the house, and that within seconds this boy of my nightmares would be within my sight. I understood that Hawk and Merri would keep me safe from him. But for a moment, I could only see his shoe coming toward my face, like it did that first time we met, and the sneer on his face when I finally realized he had my Cleo.
And then he was in front of me. For the first time, I saw that he and Sterling had shared the same splash of freckles across the nose, the same blue-gray eyes. Tears sprang to my eyes as I remembered.
“Sit down, Manning,” said Merri. “I’ll get you some hot chocolate.”
Manning sat in Merri’s chair, and Hawk sat down, too. Manning and I looked at each other, me more curious than anything. Cleo sat alert next to me; I kept a hand loosely on her collar. Manning tried to disguise his anger, but he couldn’t.
“I’m not a monster,” he said, his voice shaking. “I wouldn’t have really hurt your dog.”
“BULLSHIT,” I shouted. “How can you say that? You kicked me in the head! You beat up Sterling!”
“THAT’S A LIE!” he cried. “I NEVER BEAT UP STERLING! I WOULD NEVER DO THAT! I LOVED HIM SO MUCH! YOU HAVE NO IDEA! YOU DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT ME!”
He threw his head to the table with a loud thunk. “Shit,” he sobbed. “Shit, shit, shit. Why did you have to dive in? Why, why, why.”
Merri put her hands on his shoulders, and looked at me.
“Kids,” she said gently. “Both of you. Stop it. We’re not going to let you blame yourselves for this. It was a terrible, terrible accident, and everybody knows how much you both loved him.”
I looked at Merri in shock, unable to believe she was taking Manning’s side.
“But Merri – ” I started, but she interrupted.
“Palmer, darling,” she said firmly. “Manning has just lost his brother. We are not going to have this discussion right now. All we can do right now is ask Manning how we can help.”
Hawk placed his big hand on mine, and we watched Manning as he took deep breaths and tried to compose himself. He hadn’t touched his hot chocolate; Merri gave him some water, and he sipped it noisily, then brushed his palms over his reddened eyes.
“Sterling had a box in his room and I can’t find it,” he said. “It’s – it was really important to him, and I just want it. I thought Palmer might know where it is.”
They all looked at me.
“I don’t know about a box,” I said.
Manning exhaled then sucked his teeth. “Come on,” he said angrily. “He told you everything. Don’t you owe me this much?”
“I don’t owe you anything,” I retorted. I was surprised by my own anger, and spoke with confidence, emboldened by having my parents nearby.
“Okay, okay,” said Hawk. “Manning, what kind of box? What was in it?”
“A shoe box. And it just had some papers in it. Some family stuff. It-it-” He stuttered a bit. “I just think it should be mine now.”
“Palmer? Do you know anything at all about this?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t. I really don’t.”
I met Manning’s stare, and saw it turn hard. “All right,” he said, sort of formally. “Thanks for the water.” He pushed himself away from the table, and Cleo jumped up at the sound of the chair legs scraping against the old wood floor. He headed to the front and walked through the door without another word. Hawk closed it behind him.
“Palmer,” Merri said, but this time it was me who interrupted.
“I don’t know anything about a box,” I said. “I really don’t. And I can’t believe you’re taking his side.”
“Hold on a minute,” Hawk said sharply. “First, don’t speak to your mother that way. And second, we’re not taking anyone’s side. We just know you’re upset, and that you miss your best friend, and that you don’t particularly like Manning. I don’t really blame you for that. He’s not always that likable. But right now he’s a kid who lost his brother, and you need to show him some sympathy. And that’s that.”
“Fine,” I said. I stood up. “I’m going to get dressed.”
Cleo followed me to my room, where I threw on clothes then sat on my bed thinking about what could be in that box. I’d soon find out. Because although it was true that I didn’t know anything about the box, I did know where Sterling might have hidden something he didn’t want his brother to find. And that place was right in my own backyard.
When Sterling first began hanging around the cottage, he became enamored with the garden. We spent hours helping my parents prepare soil and harvest vegetables; the feeling of dirt in his hands made him practically giddy. He told me his grandmother complained when he came home with black fingernails, so Merri bought him a little brush to scrub them with, and then a pair of gloves which he sometimes used when helping with the roses. Another time she gave him his own little hand shovel.
But Sterling organized things like somebody throwing a handful of leaves into the wind. His possessions landed everywhere – in the tool shed, under my bed, in his backpack, and once even in my bicycle basket. Finally I gave him a big plastic container to put in the shed right next to mine; every day after we played, he opened up his storage box and threw stuff inside.
The day Manning came, it was hours before my parents stopped watching me. Finally, Hawk went to sleep and Merri started working with her photographs. I wandered out into the garden, and it took all of my willpower not to run to the shed. I stopped to smell some flowers, and pulled some weeds away from the tomato plants. The afternoon sun had sunk low, and I admired the pink-orange glow in the sky. Sterling used to love this time of day; he said it made him feel balanced – not too hot, not too cold, not too dark, not too bright.
Finally, I creaked open the shed door. There in the corner was Sterling’s blue bin. I peeled off the top; peering inside, I removed an old newspaper with a picture of a breaching whale, some garden gloves, a piece of driftwood, and a half-eaten bag of chips. And there, nestled on the bottom, I saw the shoe box.
I lifted it out of the bin and carefully pulled off the top.
It was filled with envelopes, all addressed with Sterling’s name written out in a delicate curvy script. But the street address, I noticed, wasn’t Sterling’s.
At that moment, I heard Merri calling my name. Quickly I grabbed a handful of letters and shoved them in my overall pockets, then closed up the bin and walked outside. “I’m here,” I called. “I thought I might cut some of the greenhouse roses. But none of them are ready.”
Merri had stuck her head out the back door, and she smiled when she saw me. “That’s okay,” she said. “Give them another week or so.” She retreated inside.
I waited a minute and went inside, too. “I’m tired,” I told her. “I’m going to try to take a nap.”
Merri stood up and felt my forehead, then kissed my hair. “I’m sorry this is so hard,” she said. “But I promise you’ll get through it.” I briefly placed my cheek against her chest, then went to my room.
I crawled under my covers, opened a book, and then pulled one of the letters from my pocket and placed it on the page of the book. I removed the page from the envelope, and read the first paragraph.
It was amazing to hear your voice yesterday. You have no idea how much I’ve missed you and your brother all these years, and I’m so anxious to see your sweet smiles. I love you more than you can imagine….